Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Wastelands – Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

Science Fiction, Post Apocalyptic Fiction
ISBN: 1597801054
ISBN-13: 9781597801058
Format: Paperback, 352pp
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pub. Date: January 2008
Book Website: Wastelands

Man has always been fascinated with death. From Plato’s lauding of Socrates’ death to modern experiences of the “white light and tunnel,” humans have always wondered at death. And this same dread fascination includes the death of Earth itself. Through warfare, natural disaster, neglect, or religious experience, humanity has predicted the end since recorded history, and in many forms. Post apocalyptic SF is the fictional descendant of the Book of Revelation or Nostradamus’s predictions. It speculates about what life would be like for survivors of a cataclysm that rocks the Earth, changing the very fundamental nature of society. And we, as readers, read on with dread horror at what unfolds, for we know ourselves, and that we can be capable of deeds both heroic and ghastly.

John Joseph Adams has collected some of the greatest post apocalyptic SF from the last twenty years, from some of the greatest speculative fiction talents, all in Wastelands: Stories of The Apocalypse. Many of the stories have garnered awards like Nebula’s or Hugo’s or Locus’s. Many more have been nominated or their writers have for other work. You cannot be disappointed by this collection, because the work evidenced here is some of the best story telling science fiction has to offer.

The very first story is a doozy, coming from the mind of horror fiction writer, Stephen King. King spins a tale entitled “The End of the Whole Mess” wherein a genius of uncharted proportions turns his mind to the problem of human violence. But passivity has a consequence, as the protagonist discovers. His story is unique from most of the others in this anthology in that it approaches the apocalypse from the untainted side. Most of the other stories in the volume look at what happens after the world ends, but King writes with his exceptional prose the tale of the end through the catalyst of that end.

Orson Scott Card explores his own religion of Mormonism in “Salvage.” His protagonist, Deaver, seeks wealth in drowned Salt Lake City. But the story is really about how faith and reliance on one another, with hope, allows people to bring about a rebuilding of civilization. This is one of the first stories in the “Mormon Sea” series by Card.

“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi is a strange one. Earth has become a hostile environment, but man has adapted through the use of technology, so much so that he can survive by eating radioactive rock. Without the need for animal meat, humans have left them to become extinct in the hostile world. But when three humans come across a dog, their humanity seems to return. This is a sad story about humanity’s ability for empathy and what would be lost without it.

“Bread and Bombs” is truly horrifying. It is Mary Rickert’s response to the events of 9/ll and our subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her ability to make something as innocent as snow into something horrifying and then make it a metaphor for the surprise ending was compelling. I’m not sure what point she was making, but it was still a tale both prosaic and chilling all at once.

Jonathan Lethem has a dislike of VR technology. In “How We Got into Town and Out Again” he explores what place VR would have after an apocalypse. The story is really a denouncement of those who would escape reality, and those who would profit from that desire.

“Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” applies evolutionary theory to an apocalypse. How different would men be if some survived offworld from a worldwide cataclysm and some survived underground, but were separated by centuries? Would they be able to communicate or work together? George R. R. Martin’s conclusions are sad, and remind me of colonialism in Africa, and the thoughts the conquerors must have had over about those they conquered who looked so different and seemed so primitive.

In a short and hopeful story, Tobias Buckell explores a technology that is little more than a hobby now, land sailing. “Waiting for the Zephyr” was a good story, but I felt that it was too short, and was more the seed of a story than a complete one. I like Buckell’s writing a lot, but was disappointed by this one.

In “Never Despair” by Jack McDevitt one of the great leaders of history appears to one of the survivors of a cataclysm. In a clever weaving of leader’s statements and the reactions of the protagonist, McDevitt reminds us that hope will be our greatest asset in the wake of apocalypse.

With his characteristic black humor, Cory Doctorow explores his own career in “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth.” Doctorow’s story pokes fun at geekdom, and at a strange and bizarre culture of those people who keep the internet flowing. There is a lot of techie speak that is part of the story, but Doctorow both humanizes and ridicules the scions of the Internet Age. Funny and sad all in on go.

In “The Last of the O-Forms” James Van Pelt finds that when the abnormal is normal, then normal becomes a thing of wonder and fascination. Using a traveling circus as his setting, Van Pelt reflects on what humanity takes for granted.

“Still Life with Apocalypse” is the shortest story in the anthology. At two pages, Richard Kadrey’s story provides a picture of life for those left to clean up the world. A tale reliant on visual imagery, it is a painting of a moment in time.

Catherine Wells creates a neo-Arthurian story in “Artie’s Angels.” Although a little heavy-handed in its metaphor, it is still compelling and in a way celebrates the need for legend and the idea that a hero’s death can be more world-changing than his life. It also delves into the effect on the poor that a mass exodus from a dying planet would have. People live in bubbles due to the radiation outside, and different sectors of the bubble are richer or poorer, with the rich able to get off planet. In a way, this is a look at the modern cityscape with its slums and its suburban areas all cordoned off, each from the other.

The only story not previously published elsewhere, Jerry Oltion’s “Judgment Passed” is an anti-religious screed. When a colony mission returns to earth to find that everyone has been raptured by Jesus, the leftovers struggle with whether to curse God and move on, or ask him to take them too. Oltions villain is essentially a religious zealot and his heroes agnostics. But I think his story backfires, because his heroes end up seeming shallow and selfish where he was trying to make them seem pragmatic and intelligent.

This was the first time I had read any of Gene Wolfe’s work, and I have to say that I enjoyed it. In “Mute,” Only two children are left at the end of the world. This one defies description and simply must be read; even then it probably won’t make any sense. But it is still well-sculpted.

Nancy Kress explores identity in “Inertia.” A horrible disfiguring plague causes governments to intern the victims into ghettos. Expecting them to devolve into violence, they are surprised when they create sustainable societies. A rouge group of scientists finds out why. Kress wonders at just what it might take for man to live peaceably with each other.

“And the Deep Blue Sea” has a word that comes before it in English idiom. If you know it, you’ll have a leg up in enjoying this tale. Elizabeth Bear’s story of a mail courier who is forced to choose between saving her own hide and that of an entire city is a sort of post apocalyptic Faust.

“Speech Sounds” has the most horrifying apocalyptic event of the entire anthology to my mind. Octavia E. Butler’s humanity has lost the ability to communicate through speech, and are forced to rely and hand gestures. Add to that brain damage that makes males more primal, and women to lose their memory, and what you have is a truly frightening tale. But this one ends on a hopeful note, as many of the other stories in this anthology do not.

Carol Emshwiller wrote “Killers” as a follow-through to what we have been told about the war in Iraq. It thinks about what might happen if the war were to move to our shores. Yet really, it is more about feminine jealousy than anything else. In Emshwiller’s world, most men are dead or insane from the sights of war, so good men are in short supply. If a woman were able to redeem one of these men, and then have him stolen from her, how might she react?

For those looking for a Mad Max type story, Neal Barrett Jr.’s “Ginny Sweethips Flying Circus” provides the action adventure element of post apocalyptic SF such fans are looking for. An interesting story with some interesting and unexpected plot twists, this one was just fun to read without being heavily philosophical.

Dale Bailey wonders why everyone at “The End of The World as We Know It” is always trying to rebuild civilization. A satire of the genre of post apocalyptic SF, Bailey’s story is both a review of some of the favorites we all know and love, and a close look at our sick fascination with the end of the world.

David Grigg simply looks at the effect that a catastrophe would have on artists in “A Song Before Sunset.” Since culture not longer exists, what would musicians, painters, and dramatists do? Grigg’s effects are saddening.

“Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers” is John Langan’s response to Dale Bailey’s giving up mentality in his story in this anthology. Langan’s protagonists fight desperately for their life, and seek the ability to find peace and solitude where they can rebuild. Unfortunately, they are being hunted, but ingenuity wins out in the end. This was a good story to wrap the anthology with, as it ends on a hopeful note, believing that man would strive on in the wake of apocalypse.

Wastelands is an exceptional anthology. In scope and vision it can only be compared to Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Like that famed anthology, Wastelands collects some of the best stories of a genre, each with an introduction by the editor that sets the stage for the events that unfold. The stories are full of depth, but are also so well crafted that they are not preachy. None of the stories will disappoint the reader who picks up this anthology.

John Joseph Adams has also gone a step further to give the reader a listing of some of the post apocalyptic science fiction novels we should read, if we enjoy the genre. Coupled with his introduction and the pre-story intros, the reader finds a well-crafted argument for why this subgenre of science fiction is one of the best for exploring the human condition.

I highly recommend this anthology for anyone who enjoys reading anything. A lot of these authors I had not read before and I now want to seek out their novels at the bookstore. Each story is unique, and while all share the same basic frame, each writer has been able to pull a completely different conclusion about or assessment of humanity. Some are chilling while others are hopeful, but each will show the reader a facet of himself or herself if they are willing to see it. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is the best anthology of any kind I have read to date.

Read my interview with John Joseph Adams.